GMOs, 3D-Printed Chocolate, And The Rapid Development Of Food Technology
The human population is growing faster than ever, and as we race towards a headcount of nearly 9 billion, the need for cutting-edge food technology is increasing with it. Land is becoming more sparse, distant cultures are becoming more connected, and food security is a bigger issue than ever before, but it’s not all doom and gloom!
New, emerging technologies are allowing us to analyse, track and organise the way we produce and consume food. Innovators around the world are working towards reduced waste and carbon emissions, and ultimately a world that will never go hungry. Here are some of the main food technologies which are changing the world we live in.
We’ll start with the most controversial food technology: GMOs. The technology used to create genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, is as essential to our food industries as it is notorious. As a basic definition, a GMO is anything organic which has undergone genetic engineering to grow with certain traits. The most common form of GMO is crops which have been made to have a natural resistance to pests and herbicides. On the lighter side of so-called “Frankenfood”, some crops have been genetically edited to have more nutritious value. Since the first genetically modified tomato was put on the market in 1994, the niche has swelled to become an incredibly lucrative industry. Of course, genetically modified foods have brought on a pretty heavy backlash, while breathing life into organic and vegan companies. GMO labels are now mandatory in Europe, whereas the States still hasn’t passed any formal regulations. Today, there are certain crops in development which will be able to grow outside of its native habitat, like wheat and rice. While we’re toying with nature even more here, it’s expected to increase crop yield and put a dent in food shortages.
Next, precision agriculture. You may have heard of this technology referred to as “satellite farming”. This refers to the use of GPS and satellite imaging to track soil levels, crop yields, and even weather patterns in order to increase farming efficiency. In the long term, these innovations are expected to have a profound, positive impact on the global supply of food. This makes the technology behind precision farming all the more important when we’re looking at a population of 9 billion by 2050. When a farmer’s kitted out with a precision agricultural system, they’re able to use a simple interface to pinpoint one specific area of land, and see how productive it is. When the first precision agricultural systems were released in the nineties, an entire field was treated as a single unit. With all this information at farmers’ fingertips, they’re able to avoid wasting seed, pesticides and fertilisers. The development of this technology has also drawn the attention of the international green lobby. Through precision agriculture, farmers are able to run their farm in a more sustainable way, and avoid wasting important resources like water.
Food waste tracking is another emerging technology which is going to have some big effects on the global food industry. Feeding America estimates that between 25 and 40 per cent of all the food sold in the US is thrown away every year. The campaign against food waste has been going on for decades, for obvious reasons. It’s only now, just after the social media revolution, that we’re seeing technology contribute to it. Dozens of apps and web platforms have been springing up in recent years, all focussed on making sure that food reaches people’s mouths, rather than the bin. Leloca, for example, is an app made to help restaurants minimise the food waste that’s part of their day-to-day business. It offers discounts on food of up to 50%, within 45 minutes of a posting from the restaurant. Another popular app, called 222 Million Tons, allows you to enter your household size and food preferences, then calculates a shopping list made to minimise waste. There’s even a kind of leftovers Tinder, called Leftoverswap. This lets people with leftover food match with others in the area, who’d like to purchase cheap produce and pick it up. That last one sounds like it may have some Uber-like controversy on the horizon. Still, the gradual reduction of food waste is sure to have a big impact on the food industry as a whole.
Next, 3D printing. When you hear this term, you probably don’t think about food straight away. However, recent applications of the new technology have given birth to 3D Systems’ own model designed specifically for food. The firm, currently one of the biggest corporate giants in the 3D printing industry, even had a brief stint with Hershey’s chocolate, making custom chocolate shapes. NASA has also been known to make a 3D-printed pizza, which is apparently a giant leap for astronauts’ food. The start-up Modern Meadow is also using 3D printers in the production of vegetarian meat substitutes. Most of us associate 3D printers with the manufacturing sector, but the food industry may have pushed us further towards seeing one in every home. The Foodini is a 3D printer designed to fit conveniently on a kitchen counter. You simply prepare your ingredients with a blender, feed it into the unit, and the printer makes whatever shape you want out of the mixture. This may not be the most urgent use for food technology, but you can’t deny how exciting the coming developments in 3D printed food are going to be!
Going back through all these developing technologies, I’m really starting to feel like we’re living in a sci-fi. These technologies and more are already making a huge impact on every business in the food sector, and they’re still only in their earliest stages! As time goes on, there’s no telling what kind of tech we’ll see influencing the way we eat.